I often get asked for advice on how to handle situations that seem to be spiralling out of control. A typical example is this scenario: “Last month I was brought in to sort out the mess in IT. The chief executive officer gave me control of the equipment and the people, as long as I get them working properly.
“Yet, every time I turn around something nasty jumps out and bites me.
- Availability is poor.
- About 70 per cent of the development budget goes on maintenance.
- Nobody knows who can request changes — so the maintenance teams do what anyone asks them.
- We have 10 major projects, half of which seem to be pet projects of the board.
- My staff are organised in rigid teams.
- No one will tell me why the previous chief information officer left.
With a situation as bad as this, change is almost certain to be an improvement. The first priority should be to seize control of the situation. Then, use the time to prepare for the future.
Move fast to gain control. The top priority must be to stop exacerbating problems, especially the operational ones that cause friction every day. For this, stability is critical.
I suggest you stop all non-essential changes to systems; an essential change is one mandated by law or without which operational systems will not run. As well, tell staff to refuse requests for application changes until you have clarified lines of authority.
These steps will send a clear signal to all stakeholders that things have to — and will — change. Many of your staff will not like the changes because they disrupt established relationships. IT people don’t like to say no. But you should be able to persuade them that working for a well-regarded IT department will be worth it.
These changes will free up some staff to work on your real problems. Also, I recommend you create a rapid-response team to work full-time on improving operational service levels. Create two teams if you can find the people.
This will give you rapid, visible improvements in performance. By delivering benefits like higher availability, you will increase your credibility.
Prepare for the future
Immediate improvements buy you time to address the more fundamental problems. Given the list of problems in this example, the challenges clearly lie in the relationships between IT and business leaders.
- Start an immediate review of development projects. Demand that project managers offer realistic analyses of the benefits, risks and effort involved in completing their projects. Abandon projects that are in trouble, have no business sponsor or have no business benefits.
- Cut back on maintenance. Generally maintenance changes provide few business benefits. To avoid wasting effort on low-value work, you should insist project sponsors approve all maintenance requests. Make sure they understand you will treat their endorsement as evidence the benefits exceed the costs, but that you reserve the right to reject requests if the budget will not accommodate them.
- Look for quick wins. Since much of what you will have to do will look negative, it is useful to find things that look positive. In meeting with project sponsors ask if they have urgent needs for applications that will quickly recoup the cost of implementing them.
- Reset relationships with business leaders. IS should be a corporate function, supporting business operations and initiatives. The existence of pet projects shows that board-level executives have gotten used to treating IS as a personal servant, if not a very effective one. IS should only carry out projects selected by the management team, in accordance with agreed criteria. Since this change may be politically charged, you should probably bring in an external party to explain the principles of good IT governance to the board.
- Set a limit to the transition period. These changes will be unwelcome to some. You will have to face internal opposition — and you may need to make people redundant. While the threats of reorganisation and redundancy hang over your staff, they will be distracted and less effective. Make it clear you will make the major changes within a defined period of time, ideally no more than three months.
Mary Ann Maxwell is group managing vice president, executive programmes, Gartner.
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